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The Ice Balloon: The Story of the Disastrous 1897 Expedition to the North Pole by Air

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A summertime jaunt to the Arctic Circle, spoiled.

The most famous missing person of the late nineteenth century was surely Sir John Franklin, who disappeared in 1847 with over a hundred crewmen while navigating a section of the Northwest Passage. Over the next thirty years, forty-one expeditions set off to find him, or some relic of his trip, and at the insistence of Lady Franklin, more men had died searching for Lord Franklin than on the original expedition. Eventually, word trickled back that the ships had been caught in the shifting Arctic ice and the men had starved and some had been cannibalized.

It’s been speculated that of the nearly one thousand explorers and crew who have traveled to the Arctic, only a quarter have returned. In an 1895 address to the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, S.A. Andrée proposed an expedition to the North Pole that would risk only three lives, avoiding the crushing ice floes by using a mode of transportation that promised to be safe, quick, and relatively comfortable.

He would travel by balloon.

The Ice Balloon by New Yorker staff writer Alec Wilkinson is a chronicle of that trip, and of the last generation of romantic explorers who would make the pole their life’s work.

Andrée's balloon after three days of travel north. It crashed largely intact.(Courtesy of the Grenna Museum, Sweden/The Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography)

It’s sometimes easy to forget that the Arctic is a sea of ice, unlike its southern counterpart, the solid, windswept land of Antarctica, and the North Pole has many changing faces: the Geographic North Pole (Andrée’s destination), the Magnetic North Pole, and the Geomagnetic North Pole.

The pole travels like a ghost over the Arctic plain, having more in common with a balloon than an ice breaker. It could be on the tip of Greenland, or surrounded by islands, or in open water. It’s slippery to get a hold of, and just as slippery to prove that you’ve held it. Many close calls and many claims plagued explorers for the first part of the twentieth century, when a bad calculation by frost-bitten fingers could mean the difference between glory and obscurity. (The first scientifically-proven expedition to the pole wasn’t achieved until 1926, more than 15 years after the first expeditions to Antarctica.)

The balloon house on Dane's Island in Svalbard, where Andrée constructed his launch.

In 1896, during Andrée’s first attempt at the trip, there was a festive atmosphere at the launch site in Svalbard, an archipelago in the Scandinavian north. Tourists would come to visit him as he constructed the balloon, and he in turn would give lectures. While preparing the launch, Andrée had two problems. One was that the balloon’s fabric was not sufficiently holding in the hydrogen. The other was Fridtjof Nansen.

Andrée's Arctic rival was Fridtjof Nansen, a swashbuckling Norwegian to Andrée's introspective Swede.

For the past three years, Nansen had lived with his crew above the Arctic Circle, and was known as one of the few people who could weather an arctic winter in a tent. Just a few months before he had attempted to reach the pole by skis and set a new record latitude for northern travel. When Andrée returned to Stockholm, he was besieged by Nansen’s glory. But Andrée was a different breed of explorer, his trip was not survivalist, but as Wilkinson describes it, “futurist.” His wasn’t just a plan for a successful exploration, but the beginnings of a new kind of exploration, one by air.

Andrée's balloon 'The Eagle'” sets off on its journey, leaving Svalbard on July 11, 1897. (Courtesy of the Grenna Museum, Sweden/The Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography)

The next year, in 1897, Andrée and his crew returned to Svalbard and quietly launched the balloon, which drifted out over the horizon. An eyewitness reported:

There is profound silence at this moment. We hear only the whistling of the wind through the woodwork of the shed, and the flapping of the canvas… ooThe way to the Pole is clear, no more obstacles to encounter—the sea, the ice-field, the Unknown!

The public gave Andrée a year to reach his destination, then they considered looking for his bones. Andrée had homing pigeons aboard, and false reports of the birds showing up all over the world, including, improbably, Chicago, fueled interest in Andrée’s whereabouts.

The crew successfully hunted for food. Here, Andrée stands over a dead polar bear. (Courtesy of the Grenna Museum, Sweden/The Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography)

The bodies were found more than 30 years later, on a remote island in Svalbard. According to the recovered accounts what happened was this: The balloon sailed north on a bumpy trip for three days before crashing, making it only about half as far as Nansen did the year before. With their supplies intact, the crew of three headed back south.

The crew and their small boat, struggling across a pitch of ice. There was a timer on the camera, allowing for all three men to appear in the picture. (Courtesy of the Grenna Museum, Sweden/The Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography)

For three months, the crew pulled three-hundred pound sledges across the broken ice, they shot polar bears and ate them, they celebrated the Swedish Jubilee on September 18th with flags and a special menu, and they took pictures, lots of them, which illustrated a journey of hardship but also good spirits until the end. The pictures also revealed to the world a dreamlike sight: an inflated balloon on its side in the Arctic.

The Ice Balloon is a remarkable account by Wilkinson, not just of S.A. Andrée and his crew, but of all Arctic explorers, some looking for a route, others for the glory of the pole. These were people of a different will, a different mind, and as Wilkinson writes, a different age, now at an end:

It is no observation of my own that the nineteenth century was the last to have been receptive to the enactment of myths… the last to pursue their models and outlines and to feel the rightness of embodying them… The walls of the known, the boundaries were close at hand. It was as if the restraints that men felt in sociable life made them feel compelled out rush into the wild.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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What It’s Like to Live in a Universe of Ten Dimensions

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What songwriting has to do with string theory.

What would happen if you crossed the physics of time with the science of something and nothing? You might get closer to understanding the multiverse. In Imagining the Tenth Dimension: A New Way of Thinking About Time and Space, Rob Bryanton — a self-described “non-scientist with an inquisitive mind,” whose dayjob as a sound designer involves composing music for TV series and films — proposes a theory of the universe based on ten dimensions, a bold and progressive lens on string theory based on the idea that countless tiny “superstrings” are vibrating in a tenth dimension. In order for us, creatures of a three-and-a-half-dimensional world, to begin to wrap our heads around this concept, we have to radically reconsider our perception of infinity, the possible and the impossible, and consciousness itself — which is precisely what Bryanton sets out to do, in what he is careful to frame as a personal expression rather than a traditional scientific theory.

For a taste, here is a mind-bending explanation of ten dimensions might mean:

The project began as a set of 26 songs, exploring the intersection of science and philosophy. Over the years, Bryanton began to see connections between his own ideas and scientific theories across quantum physics, multiple dimensions, and superstrings, including the “Many Worlds Theory” first advanced by physicist Hugh Everett III in 1957. In time, he developed a model of the universe based on the harmonics of superstring vibrations.

Before launching into the additional dimensions, Bryanton also breaks down the familiar three:

A kind of scientific expressionism and creative exploration of curiosity, Imagining the Tenth Dimension might not rewrite the theories of Stephen Hawking, but it is certain to give you pause.

HT It’s Okay To Be Smart

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Lewis Hyde on Work vs. Labor and the Pace of Creativity

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On the osmosis of willful intention and flow.

After last year’s omnibus of 5 timeless books on fear and the creative process, a number of readers rightfully suggested an addition: Lewis Hyde’s 1979 classic, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, of which David Foster Wallace famously said, “No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged.”

One particular quote seems to resonate deeply with those of us who work in the loosely defined creative field.

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus–these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify… Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors.

Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule.

There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labor. When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, therefore, creativity is automatically devalued every time there is an advance in the technology of work.”

What seems to be the defining characteristic of labor, the differentiator that sets it apart from work, is that it involves, or can induce, a state of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow — a kind of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter for a pet project, or even spent 20 consecutive hours composing a love letter, you’ve experienced flow and you know labor.

Now, the question becomes, how do we bring this to work.

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